Report calls for hog farm moratorium, new permit system

David Pitt
Associated Press

DES MOINES, IA (AP)  - A new report on the rapid expansion of hog farms in Iowa calls for a moratorium on new barns and concludes that the state's regulatory system is failing to protect the environment and public health for the sake of profit of the politically powerful livestock industry.

A hog stands in a pen at a farm near Perry, IA. A new report on the rapid expansion of hog farms in Iowa concludes that the state's regulatory system is failing to protect the environment and public health for the sake of profit of the politically powerful livestock industry.

"A tipping point has been reached. Rural Iowans have every reason to be concerned," said the report released Thursday by retired University of Iowa professors James Merchant and David Osterberg.

Merchant is professor emeritus of Public Health and Medicine and founded the College of Public Health and Osterberg is professor emeritus of Occupational and Environmental Health. He is co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project, a liberal-leaning Iowa City-based nonprofit group that offers research on environmental, economic, energy and tax policies, which released the report.

They point out that the number of Iowa livestock farms called concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs has grown to more than 10,000 from 722 in 2001. The annual growth has been around 500 new or expanded barns a year for the last decade. Most of them are built to house pigs to satisfy the rapidly growing export market for pork, which grew to nearly $6 billion in 2016, up 7 percent in one year.

Exports to the China and Hong Kong markets broke the $1 billion mark for the first time in 2016 and exports are expected to further expand to meet China's insatiable appetite for pork.

The report concludes that livestock production contributes to degradation of water quality, increased cases of asthma and other illnesses among residents near hog confinement operations and a 20 to 40 percent decline in the value of homes near hog farms because of the odor.

"The current industrial model is not sustainable given its high input costs, rising energy demands, fresh water needs, climate change, and adverse environmental and public health impacts," the report concluded. "The very real pushback from rural residents and communities will, however, be sustained."

Merchant and Osterberg made several recommendations including revision of the permitting process for new barns that would allow for increased local input, a moratorium on new construction and establishment of land covenants and other local legal strategies to limit local livestock barn growth.

The pork industry acknowledges growth in the industry but considers it good for farmers and good for the economy of Iowa, the nation's leading pork producer which had nearly 23 million pigs as of the USDA December inventory report. That was nearly a quarter of the national supply of 73.2 million. The next closest state was North Carolina with 9.3 million hogs.

"We understand there are concerns out there and we believe those concerns are being addressed by the current system understanding that others don't," said Eldon McAfee, an agriculture law attorney who represents the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

He said producers believe the current permit system in effect for 16 years has worked and farmers have complied with its requirements and continue to be held responsible when there are accidental spills of manure into creeks or streams.

"A moratorium would be devastating to the Iowa economy and livestock producers," he said.

On the health claims, McAfee said he knows of no court case where it has been proven that a hog farm has been proven responsible for causing individual's illness.

A spokeswoman for the Iowa Farm Bureau, one of the state's largest agriculture lobbying groups, declined to comment on the report and spokesman for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which oversees livestock farm permitting and inspections, did not immediately respond to a message.

There are signs that a public groundswell is building in opposition to sustained rapid growth.

County supervisors from 20 of Iowa's 99 counties lobbied lawmakers changes in the permit process which has allowed for 97 percent of new livestock barn applications to be approved even when local county officials, local citizens and neighbors have protested.

Nine livestock farm nuisance lawsuits are pending in Iowa courts. The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments on Feb. 12 in a case in which a group of southeast Iowa landowners are trying to strike down as unconstitutional a law that provides livestock farms with immunity from nuisance lawsuits.